Jewish Democrat Sen. Frank Lautenberg dies at 89

Lautenberg, the last surviving WWII veteran in Congress, passes away; honored for commitment to Jewish community.

June 3, 2013 17:22
3 minute read.
Jewish Democrat Sen. Frank Lautenberg dies at 89

frank lautenberg. (photo credit: Judy Siegel-Itzkovich)

Democratic US Senator Frank Lautenberg, 89, the last surviving World War II veteran in the US Congress, has died, a party aide said on Monday.

Lautenberg, of New Jersey, passed away after battling a number of ailments that allowed him to make only a few appearances on Capitol Hill in recent months, including his vote in favor of a failed bill to expand background checks for gun owners.

Last week, Lautenberg was honored in New York with the Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life's "Renaissance Award," given each year to someone whose work has impacted Jewish life.

The National Jewish Democratic Council on Monday mourned the loss of a "giant" among American Jewish political leaders, stating:

"The late Senator leaves behind a distinguished record of public and Jewish communal service that distinguishes him as a giant among American Jewish political leaders."

In a statement to the press, Chair Marc R. Stanley said Lautenberg was a "staunch defender of progressive ideals and a stalwart advocate for the State of Israel and the American Jewish community."

He was born in Paterson to Mollie and Sam Lautenberg, poor Jewish immigrants from Russia and Poland who were brought as babies to the US.

Forty-one years ago, he established the Lautenberg Center for General and Tumor Immunology at the Hebrew University Medical Faculty. He did so in memory of the Jerusalem-born rabbi, Shai Shacknai, who presided over Lautenberg's Reform synagogue in his hometown of Paterson, New Jersey, and died of cancer at 36, leaving a wife and two young children. Lautenberg was so upset over his passing that he endowed the Rabbi Shai Shacknai Prize awarded annually by the center to honor leading cancer researchers from abroad.

Early in his Washington career, he worried that he might have to face a situation in which America's position stood in bold contradiction to the good of Israel.

"There have been occasional moments when relations were chilly, but [a confrontation between the two countries] has not been a problem," Lautenberg told the Post in 2009.

He was sorry that Obama's image among Israelis has been negative so far and said that polls have shown that only 31 percent perceive his views as pro-Israel. He also advocated talks with Iran.

"Obama has many Jewish supporters in the US. Israelis' opinions about him are neither fair nor accurate. He has a different style than [former president George W.] Bush, who conducted a discredited presidency that was bad for world stability. A lack of world stability is not good for Israel. Obama has come to change the status quo and not to alienate the rest of the world from the US. To be a leader, you have to talk to other countries. We have to talk even to Iran."

While US government policy has consistently been for Israel to return to the pre-Six Day War lines, Lautenberg said he was sure that Israel "won't return to the '67 borders. They are insufficient to permit Israel to function. I can't predict what the map will look like. As for the old settlements, Israel captured the territories when it was attacked, and it won the war. It was entitled to build defenses to promote its security. Older settlements are a reality. But the newer settlements and outposts are counterproductive and threatening in a way that almost prevents discussions with the Palestinians."

Lautenberg met with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman during his short visit in 2009, and also held meetings in Jericho and Ramallah in the Palestinian Authority.

"Some accommodations with the Palestinians have to be made," he said. But Lautenberg agreed with Obama that due to Palestinian demographics, the only solution to their conflict with Israel is the two-state solution.

"If you look at Palestinian population growth in the territories, you can see that one day in the not-too-distant future, there will be a Palestinian majority. Israel must talk to people in the West Bank and offer them help with agriculture, education and the necessary structure for a functioning society when they get a state of their own."

A temporary replacement will be named by New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie. A Democratic aide said Christie is expected to name a Republican to replace Lautenberg.

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